Vern Blosum, the elusive persona of an unknown abstract painter who, over the course of four years in the 1960s, incisively parodied Pop, died on August 20. Essex Street gallery in New York, which represents the semi-fictional artist, confirmed the news in an email this morning, but did not provide a place or cause of death.
Blosum’s career poses unusual questions for scholars and critics, who, for the past few years, have fallen into deep art-history rabbit holes trying to research him. The reason: Blosum was not a real person, or at least not completely. Blosum’s true identity has never been revealed, although thanks to articles by Greg Allen and William E. Jones, it is known that an abstract artist was puppeteering Blosum during the early 1960s, and that he was doing so as a critique of Pop art’s arguably simple-minded embrace of consumer culture.
“I talked to the artist this morning on the phone,” Maxwell Graham, the director of Essex Street, told Art in America in 2013. “He shows his own abstract paintings. He has a doctorate. He likes to talk Kant.” By the end of his career, Blosum had given just one comment on record, to the New York Times in 1967.
In an email to ARTnews today, Graham wrote, “It was Vern Blosum’s wish that he always remain anonymous. He was active between 1961–1964, and then again for a brief reprise in 2015, a swan song if you will. . . . He will be very dearly missed.”
Blosum’s work began appearing as early as 1961, when he painted mordantly witty pictures of objects, along with short text describing them in sans-serif font. For example: a rotary telephone with the word “TELEPHONE,” a stop sign with the word “STOP.” Between 1961 and 1964, Blosum produced some 44 paintings in this vein, and as his short stint as a Pop painter went on, the connection between text and image grew increasingly fraught. A pigeon would be paired with “PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE”; a blue fire hydrant would be paired with “HOMAGE TO IVAN K,” presumably in reference to Ivan Karp, the art dealer who, at the time, was the associate director of Leo Castelli Gallery, which showed Blosum.
It appears that, during the ’60s, critics and curators really did consider Blosum a Pop artist. Lucy Lippard mentioned Blosum’s work in her 1966 book Pop Art, and the paintings were included in important Pop surveys at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, the Oakland Art Museum in California, and the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Blosum’s paintings were also acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, whose director at the time, Alfred H. Barr, had some questions about Blosum’s identity. When Blosum’s work appeared in a 1964 recent acquisitions show there, Barr wrote to Leo Castelli, saying, “Hoax or no hoax, I like the painting which is now on view—but our catalogue is a serious record.” He demanded more information.
Blosum obliged him with a tersely worded biography:
Born in Denver April 29, 1936
Parents died at early age, moved from relative to relative
First real job was running cars into Mexico for resale
Later became a used car salesman
No formal art training, learned all I know from a friend, who taught me the fundamentals and encouraged me to paint.
After five years of intensive work, I moved to South Elgin to be near my friend.
My hobbies are flying and reading. I had a plane but lost it when I decided to devote my full time to painting and couldn’t make the payments.
In an essay by William E. Jones, it was revealed that the part about having no formal art training wasn’t completely true. Jones discovered that the artist behind Blosum had briefly studied with Adolph Gottlieb and even attended a graduate art program at Hunter College in New York. Hoax or no hoax, however, Blosum has gone on to inspire a group of younger artists who have invented fake identities, either to circumvent art-world systems or to poke fun at them.